It has been a year since Dr Iqbal Survé, the executive chairman of Independent Media, took over Independent Newspapers. This past week, he sat down with Aakash Bramdeo, the editor of Sunday Tribune, and deputy editor Mazwi Xaba for a chat:
What does Sekunjalo mean and what is the thinking behind the name for the company?
Sekunjalo is a isiXhosa name which means “now is the time”. It’s also got a Sesotho version. When the company was formed, it was in response to the requirements of the country to transform. We said the name of the company should reflect the values, the history, the connection with people as well as the fact that we were at an important time in our economic transformation.
Furthermore, “ Sekunjalo, ke nako”, “now is the time” was a song Madiba jived to when he was on the stage in the build-up to the first democratic election.
What’s your vision for Independent Newspapers?
First, it is a rights-based vision. It’s possible to bring dignity to our country and to use the resources of our people to do that. Second, we want to deliver a product or service to people that really brings value to them. Third, we have a social mission to provide employment, build social cohesion and achieve growth, bring dignity to people.
Was buying Independent Newspapers a vanity purchase?
The decision was really inspired by my daughter. She felt what was reflected in the Cape Town papers was distant to what she was experiencing and what those around her were experiencing. So I started off by going to the Irish to purchase the Cape Times and that was well before the Irishmen were even considering selling anything.
So it was not based on any kind of silly vanity project because I don’t make decisions that way. Vain people buy very expensive cars and aeroplanes and boats and live in fancy houses. I’m exactly the opposite. I live a very simple life.
Do you want your newspapers and their associated platforms to become the mouthpieces of the ANC?
It does not make any business sense to be a mouthpiece for anybody. The best thing we can do for our democracy and our country is to be balanced, give all points of view, be critical but fair, give the right of reply and to inform. If we do that, I think the ANC will benefit tremendously. I think the government will benefit tremendously. But opposition parties will also benefit because we will be providing a valuable social service to our people.
The best safeguard to editorial freedom is to make sure you are profitable, that you build from the bottom up, that you democratise your workplace and uphold the values of balance and fairness.
I have not had any call ever from any member of the ANC asking us for anything. On the contrary, I’ve had many calls from the DA to try to influence the position of our papers. My response has always been: “I am very happy to give you the number of the editor. But the only thing I can guarantee is that the editor will listen to you.”
What is your perspective on the change of leadership on some of the titles?
Change is good. It brings fresh energy. It brings innovation and diversity. Independent is one of the oldest media companies in the country. But sometimes they operated like they did decades ago. There was no change.
My responsibility is to make sure our titles reflect the diversity of our country. A newspaper reflects the opinion of the society it operates in. It is a mirror of that society. But you can only do that if your editorial team is reflecting that society.
So we have many good editors but the changes I made should reflect the diversity of the country. They were based on non-racialism, they were based on the principle of equality and the promotion of very competent people.
Is there a role for whites in the company?
Look first at the values and principles by which I operate, which are rights-based values and principles. I am a non-racialist at heart. That’s what Madiba fought for. I believe in the dignity of people and I believe it is infantile to think in terms of race when making decisions. However, this does not mean we must not understand the impact apartheid had and the legacy it left on our country. When you make decisions based on the future of your country it is really important to stand firm on the principles of non-racialism. And in that respect I am delighted that my appointments have been across the colour lines – Kevin Ritchie heads up The Star, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya at The Mercury, Gasant Abarder at Cape Times and Yogas Nair at Post. These reflect real diversity.
Are you happy with the progress you have made in the media business?
I think we’re ahead of where we wanted to be. We’re very pleased that on the technology front we’ve been able to leapfrog some of our competitors. The efficiencies we’ve been able to make in the business without retrenchments have been phenomenal.
Media24 let go of 486 people in the past year and the Times Group 130 people. We have a net employment of 64 people, which is unbelievable in this economic climate. So we’re definitely ahead of the game. We are ahead of our own objectives but we have a long way to go to achieve a sustainable business. I’d say at least one year of hard work lies ahead of us.
What is the secret of your success?
The first is to respect everybody. Understanding the dignity of people is fundamental to what you do. Treat people like you would want them to treat you because your success is not built on you alone. There are many people who contributed to the success I have today.
The second thing is that you must be clear about what it is that you want and you must be serious about that. The third thing is that you must be resilient. The fourth is that you must have the capacity to be focused. You must listen but not be diverted by the noise.
You also need to be loosely coupled – you need to understand your viewpoint can change based on the contextual circumstances you are involved in.
Fundamentally, success is dependent on multiple factors, but life is also a lottery. Many people have the potential and capacity to be successful but, due to life’s circumstances, they don’t get there. As a result, one must always have humility about one’s success.
What advice would you give other up-and-coming business people, especially black entrepreneurs?
Choose carefully what you want to do. Focus on it and build on it. People will try many different things hoping that one of them will be the goose that lays the golden egg, but by doing that you spread your energy among many different investments and opportunities. What you should do is focus on one opportunity and then spend your time and energy driving it.
But not everyone is an entrepreneur. It’s important to know that. Sometimes people become entrepreneurs for the wrong reason. They do it to become wealthy. I think if you put money as the reason why you want to become an entrepreneur, it is the wrong reason.
Why did you step down from Sekunjalo Investments?
The Sekunjalo Group has different legs to it. There is the public-listed company and there is the investment holding company. I left the listed company at a time when assets have exceeded a billion. They were growing at a phenomenal rate and there was just a super team in place.
It is always better to leave when you are at the top. But it is never easy when you are the founder of the company.
What will be your role in the media business?
Independent is a very exciting place to be because of the opportunity to change a legacy print media company to a content-based technological media company that grows. To me, that’s a marvellous opportunity in my lifetime.
What are your thoughts on our 20 years of democracy?
One has to always measure things by where you come from and where you are going. Where we come from was a violent, racist, institutionalised social system designed to enslave the majority of the people, who happened to be poor. As challenging as our democracy is, today it is definitely better than the system under which we were.
We are a young democracy and we have a long way to go. But I think our democracy is in a very good place. We need to respect the institutions set up by our constitution – the Chapter Nine institutions, parliamentary and judicial institutions. The day you don’t is the day you create chaos in our democracy.
Nothing in life is without a challenge. But I am an optimist about the future of South Africa and I am a firm believer that we will fix some of our problems.
How do you feel about President Jacob Zuma as our president?
You respect your president. I respected Madiba, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe. And now I respect Jacob Zuma. I think if you are a democrat, that is what you do. If Helen Zille were tomorrow to become president of the country, I would respect her.
On a personal level I think the president is a very good man – a warm person. Has he got flaws? Of course. I don’t think there is any question about that. But does that mean one must not respect the president of the country?
However, my opinion about any leader of any political party is not necessarily important to my being a media owner. My editors should not consider my opinion whether I support Helen Zille or Jacob Zuma or anyone else. What they must consider is whether these are good leaders, whether they respect the institutions, and how they promote our democracy.
What do you think needs to be done to grow our economy to create jobs and reduce poverty and inequality?
It comes down to leadership. As citizens we demand good leadership from our government. Let us similarly demand good leadership from captains of industry. Every decision we take must be about the future. The reason the Chinese are so successful is because their development is based on 50-year plans executed on five-year terms. Our mindset needs to change.
Is Chinese trade with Africa only benefiting China?
Show me an investor that invests for non-profit purposes. Then it is not an investor but a donor. But even donors act in their national interests. We must grow up. Of course investors will want a return on investment. The notion that we should not accept Chinese money because they want resources is a false notion because everyone wants resources as well. We must accept we live in a globalised world and globalisation means the transfer of capital, resources and people.
It is the reality in which we operate. So, in that respect, welcome to the globalised world.
* This Q+A was first published in the Sunday Tribune.